The school shootings in a quiet Connecticut town have shaken us all up. Parents, children, teachers, and school administrators everywhere are asking “Why?” President Obama became teary eyed as he spoke about it, no doubt thinking of his own children as all we parents are right now. Inevitably, this becomes a political football for the gun control people as well as the people at the NRA. Each side will stake its claim, and I am certainly not writing about any of that. My purpose here is to react as a parent and as a school administrator to what has kept me awake the last two nights.
Let me say straightaway that there is no making sense of this because there is no making sense of it. The very nature of such an act of brutality is beyond comprehension for rational people. We go about our lives doing everything in our power to sustain life, to keep our children safe, and to take care of those near and dear to us. We also, if we are in such a position, sometimes must take care of those other than our family members.
As a school administrator, I am always thinking about school security (besides the hundreds of other things that need to be done). When I heard that Dawn Hochsprung, principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, was shot trying to stop the gunman, I understood immediately the place from which Ms. Hochsprung got her motivation. She reacted just as the firefighters who went upstairs in the World Trade Center on 9/11 while everyone else was coming down. This goes beyond the call of duty because it is a truly sacred mission that pushes you forward. This is the necessary and compelling nature of teachers and their roles with the children in their charge, one that is known as in loco parentis. This basically means that we educators are “in place of the parents” during that school day, and you can get no better example of that than these brave individuals who sacrificed their lives for their students.
There is so much for us to think about now as parents. I have talked with my kids this weekend, ascertaining their level of understanding of the situation. My pre-school child has no idea what happened, so I have said nothing to him. My middle school child is more than aware of the situation, and we have spoken about it a bit, but she seems like she is thinking deeply and probably has to process it more. We have definitely limited the TV to watching benign things such as a few Christmas specials and the shows my little one likes on Nick Jr. and Disney Junior.
I cannot help but to keep thinking about those 20 lost children as I watch these shows with my children. No doubt these little ones watched these same shows, were excited about the impending holidays, had written their letters to Santa, and had visions of the toys and games that he would bring. Their parents must have wrapped gifts, decorated houses, and now they sit in the silence of mourning in homes that should have been brimming with festivity. How can this Christmas, and all the Christmases to come for that matter, ever be anything but a time to grieve?
I know that so much more will be said about this horrific story in the days and weeks to come. As someone who lost a family member on 9/11, I know how a story just doesn’t go away. The same thing will happen for these people who have lost loved ones. December 14 is their 9/11 now and every year forevermore. People used to say that you have to get over it in reference to 9/11, but as anyone who lost someone that day knows, there is no getting over it. The same will be true for the parents, friends, children, and spouses of those lost.
An even more daunting task awaits all of us tomorrow. Children came home from school on Friday in a normal state of mind. They will board school buses tomorrow differently. Those older ones will be thinking about what happened, wondering if their schools are safe, and waiting to hear something from their principals and teachers. There may be some children (perhaps many) who are afraid to go to school. We as parents must ground them in the notion that this was an aberration, something that happened that is isolated and far removed from their schools and lives; however, as we say this we parents also know the truth: that it can happen anywhere, as this incident so chillingly proves beyond a doubt.
There is one thing of which you can be certain: teachers and administrators will be ready tomorrow to deal with the students and their concerns. School district leaders and administrators have learned so much since 9/11, and much of this has been realized in better crisis management plans and increased security. Unfortunately, all the enhanced security that was in place at Sandy Hook did not stop that madman. This is a reality we face and a vulnerability that continually needs to be understood and addressed.
I overheard people talking this morning outside on the church steps after Mass, and one of the men said something that seemed almost equally scary as the attack. He said that every school needs to become like a high security prison, with an armed guard at the entrance and metal detectors. I did not want to get into a conversation like that, but I kept thinking on the way home that this is beyond a nightmare scenario.
Do our schools need to become so secure that they are shuttered and locked down? My fear is that we will become so adept at keeping people out that the students inside will feel incarcerated more than educated. It seems like a high price to pay for peace of mind, but it may become inevitable in the coming years. How sad for our children; how sad for us all.